Imagination as Oasis: A Conversation with Sulaiman Addonia

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Sulaiman Addonia’s Silence Is My Mother Tongue, out now from Graywolf Press, lays bare the inner life of a refugee camp through the stories of Saba and her mute brother, Hagos. As a refugee, Saba is forced to give up school but she still longs for the future life she imagined for herself. Hagos, on the other hand, lost his chance at an independent future long before entering the camp, when, as a young child, his parents stopped his education after discovering he would never speak. The siblings’ roles reverse. Saba tries to live a more carefree life typically reserved for male members of the family, and Hagos takes on the domestic duties typically ascribed to girls and becomes in a sense the daughter Saba will never be.

As the novel opens, Saba is on trial for incest with Hagos—a trial largely driven by the community’s failure to understand the siblings’ bond and their refusal to bend to gender and societal conventions. As Saba awaits the verdict, we learn how the fellow refugees in the community have turned against her.

Aside from the salacious nature of the trial, Silence is My Mother Tongue dissects how a refugee camp erases one’s individuality, what communities demand of women, and how, in the face of great loss and scrutiny, one can find a way to redeem individuality by redefining love, sex and gender roles.

I spoke with Sulaiman by email about the blurred lines between the imaginary and the real, what influences his writing, and the possibility of redefining the concepts of family, love, and sex.

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The Rumpus: You spent a portion of your childhood in a refugee camp and dedicated your second book to your playmates from the camp. In the dedication, you wrote “[o]ur playfulness was our painkiller in that place of scarcity. I thought of you, and the childhood friends we saw buried, whenever I came close to giving up.” Is there a specific memory from your time in the refugee camp that sparked the idea for Silence Is My Mother Tongue? How much of your own experience did you draw on to write the book.

Sulaiman Addonia: I have always been fascinated by this question. [Federico] Fellini said, “I see no line between the imaginary and the real.” For me, too, the lines between fiction and nonfiction are so blurred at times. Maybe that is because sometimes, I feel my life, with all its turns and twists, feels more like fiction than reality. But to go back to your question: the truth is, I don’t know. What I know, though, is that the setting is real. I like to operate in places I know. In this novel, for example, I set out—and I see myself as sort of an architect—rebuilding our camp from memory, lane by lane, hut by hut, and shrub by shrub. The other thing I know is that my imagination is my greatest power. I have lost many things in my life—my parents, both for different reasons, when I was three or four. My country when I was two. I have lost my mother tongue. I have been sent from a camp to another, migrated between countries and continents, but through all that, my imagination has been the only constant fixture in my life. It has saved me. It has been, and still is, my oasis.

Rumpus: I loved the idea of the silent cinema in the camp, the way it creates the illusion that the reality of the camp and the virtual world of the silent films existed in harmony. Yet, as we know nothing is as it seemed. Is the blurring of reality a survival mechanism? A way for the book’s refugees to be who they want to be and not persons bound by their circumstances?

Addonia: I was thinking that perhaps more than just as a “survival mechanism,” it is maybe a way of being for someone like Jamal, the owner of the cinema in the refugee camp. I think that the issue with “refugee” as a phrase/label/status—I can’t settle on the right word here—is that it is so overpowering as if it is an ocean that washes over people’s history, their past, and personal attributes, both good and bad. It seems we imply that when one becomes a refugee, that this person’s past is rendered uniform. For me, and I think what the novel tries to do, is to show that more than surviving, being a refugee is also having the chance for a rebirth or continuation, and that as human beings we have the power to be ourselves wherever we are, even in inhospitable, remote, and hostile places like a refugee camp. Perhaps Jamal was always like this, even before migrating to the camp, taking joy from the soft borders between reality and illusion.

Rumpus: There’s almost a voyeuristic quality to the cinema also, along with the sense that nothing is private in the camp. I see it as a symbol of the loss of individual identity. Was that your intention?

Addonia: I pondered for a long time over your word, “intention.” I don’t think I had any intention. As a writer, I am someone who believes in the power of imagination. This book took ten years to write. There were many years of trials and errors and there were many reasons for that. One of them, I fear, is that in the beginning, I had intentions. I had a message and I wanted to dictate to my characters what to do. I hated those early drafts. They were bad, preachy. And the book only started to come together once I learned how to submit to the story. That’s when I became a passenger on the powertrain of my imagination. It went this way or that way, I just followed wherever it took me, no matter how painful that was at times.

But I can see why you would see it like that. I think it is a legitimate conclusion, in my opinion. But that prompts me to ask myself, does every single attribute we own have to have an explanation? Do we need a reason to turn up one way or another? Perhaps for some refugees, it was the case that being “voyeuristic” was a symbol of loss, but for some, I believe, it was just a part of who they are. For example, when Saba masturbates on the first day of her arrival in the camp, a trusted reader of my early drafts complained at the time that that scene wasn’t convincing. “How is it possible for someone who has just been made a refugee to do this on her first day in the camp?” my reader asked me. But I kept that scene, because I believed it was a subconscious thing for Saba to do, that she is someone who pays attention to the need of her desires and that these are not bound by any circumstances.

Rumpus: There’s a cinematic quality in the structure of the book as well—almost as if a camera was overhead showing us Saba moving from one area of the camp to another. How did you decide on the way structure of the book and its style?

Addonia: I can talk about cinema forever. First of all, a bit of background. In the refugee camp, we obviously didn’t have enough food let alone books or libraries or shops or anything like that. But whenever we visited Kassala, the capital of east Sudan, we would occasionally visit its cinema. The films they showed were largely Indian and martial arts movies. Bruce Lee was big. So, these films left huge impressions on me. Back in the camp, I’d think about them all the time. In that sense, cinema was an influence before books. And since I became a writer, I learned a lot from movies. I mean, over the years, I have, on many occasions, watched films without sound/subtitle, films like the South Korean Parasite, the Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love, and many foreign erotic films. The reason being that with the absence of sound, I like to pay exclusive attention to the structure of the film: the cinematography, the light, the colors, the settings, the design, the interactions of bodies and the background, the features, skin. By eliminating sound, you come to train your eyes to follow movement so that you almost acquire the inquisitiveness and speed of a camera. I think the imagery in my prose comes from that.

Rumpus: The idea of being bound by one’s circumstances plays out in several other ways. Hagos is mute and confined to a narrow world because of his inability to speak. In camp, Saba loses her opportunity to go to school. Yet they find ways to break from those forms of confinement. Tell us about why you chose to make Hagos mute?

Addonia: He came to me mute. Just as he came to me with all his feminine qualities. Actually Hagos was the easiest of the characters to work with. Looking back, I think that was because he came to my imagination ready. It was as if I was walking through a dense forest for a long time before suddenly happening across a stream. He was that stream. I just sat and watched it, him, flow by, unfolding his layers of depths before my own eyes. His power was in that gentle, poetic presence, that glued me to him.

Rumpus: Saba speaks for Hagos, but she isn’t always able to speak for herself. Is that purely a function of gender roles?

Addonia: It could certainly be that. If I am to go back to my early years of life in the camp and Saudi Arabia and ruminate on those observations to answer your question, then, yes, it is a function of an assigned gender role. Girls in our family were silenced, their voices crippled. It was the opposite for boys. They were encouraged to own the space through talking. I remember how my silence—and I was a silent kid—worried my family. They debated about whether to take me to a doctor to find a cure for it. I remember being told that as a boy I had to speak, to roar, and that silence was for girls. That left an impression. I grew up thinking there was something intrinsically wrong with me.

Rumpus: As the story unfolds, it’s clear that gender role reversal is a concern. Hagos cooks and takes on roles that are traditionally relegated to women, and Saba goes to school in Hagos’s place when it is clear that he will never speak. What do you want your readers to take from these role reversals?

Addonia: I really didn’t think about any reader when writing this book. That was the freedom for me, in isolating myself from the readers, in my solitude, in my sleepless nights, in my suffering. I and the characters were alone as if we were on a boat roaming a vast sea. I would love many readers for this book, but I can only be honest and say to them that I didn’t think of you when writing this book. I think that it is a sign of respect between the writer and readers for me to own up to this. I am not diminishing their importance. But their value for me as a writer is in their total absence from my imagination during the writing process. I trust them to make their own conclusion. Having said that, I am happy to read the letters from my readers that I am fortunate to receive from readers in Spain, France, Italy, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Egypt, and so on. And in many of these letters, that part of the book speaks to them. I get this joy of freeing ourselves from gender roles and being true to ourselves.

Rumpus: Identity is also important. During Saba’s trial, there is some discussion about where she is from. You write: “We are in a camp but a father is a girl’s land and a girl would never be exiled from her culture and traditions with her father around.” Is Saba’s identity crisis heightened by the fact that she has lost her country, or by the absence of her father?

Addonia: Absences and losses are heartbreaking but they can also be an opportunity to formulate our own ideas in life. This is one lesson I take from my life experience. So rather than having an identity crisis, I am wondering if perhaps Saba grows as a person as a result of those losses you describe. And I feel, perhaps, she was able to take the tough decisions she does throughout the book only because she experienced those losses. They allowed her to take charge and find alternatives to the absences in her life, in her own way. I am thinking that she becomes her own father, her own country, a leader of her own destiny as a result of life’s circumstances. There are various ways of dealing with loss; Saba shows us some.

Rumpus: Is the issue of identity also a function of gender roles?

Addonia: When we think about identity, we assume it has to be set, settled. So, in that regard, to have an identity, I have come to understand, is a sign of strength. For someone to have a country, a religion, a family all contribute to a bulletproof self-belief. I saw it in Sudan, when many called us refugees, and again in Saudi Arabia, when I was called the same, and again in London to which I came as an underage immigrant. It always struck me how confident these people—the so-called natives—seemed so that they were able to throw abuse at me. For those like Saba, like me, people who lost their countries, their families, then identity is something fluid. Strength comes in fragility. I don’t think I am rooted in one idea, one identity, and I am not obsessed by any flag. I don’t know what it means to love a country, though I know what it means to love a book. But then again, as a writer it’s good that I don’t have roots, I think to myself. I like the idea of eternally floating.

Rumpus: One of the moments in the book that stopped me was the image of a group of men huddled over a torn newspaper, another man cutting up the paper in pieces and dividing it among the men. “The men scattered off in different directions with broken sentences, as if nothing needed to make sense.” That sentence feels like it captures so much about the lives of these refugees, and Saba’s trial that opens the book. There’s the sense throughout that no one really wants to know the full truth about anything, not about the revelations in Saba’s trial, not about the various relationships that grow in the camp. But the scene also harks back to the idea that everything in camp is shared. Nothing is personal. Is that another one of the losses refugees experience that you wanted your readers to experience?

Addonia: There has to be a curtain drawn between me and the readers when I am in the writing phase. But I find your remarks quite beautiful actually and I am grateful to hear it, although I don’t know why I wrote that particular scene and that particular sentence; at times of writing, I am almost in delirium, an unconscious state (if that’s something possible to say). I love to be at that heightened sense of total submission to the imagination, as if drugged by my characters and their world. But it could be exactly what you said; it could be that I felt their loss so much that those words came to emphasize their situation. Whatever it is, it is there. And perhaps this is what it is, that as a writer,  am also the reader, a reader of my characters’ thoughts and carrier of their memories.

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Photograph of Sulaiman Addonia by Lyse Ishimwe.


Donna Hemans is the author of two novels: River Woman and Tea by the Sea. Her short stories and essays have appeared in Electric Literature, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Caribbean Writer, Crab Orchard Review, and Witness, among others. She is currently working on a novel about Jamaican migrants in Cuba. Find her online at donnahemans.com or on Twitter @donna_hemans. More from this author →